In 1902, Mark Twain published “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. The protagonist, Tom Sawyer is believed to be dead, and a funeral (without a body) is held for him. Unbeknownst to the community, Tom and Huckleberry are at the back, and Tom eavesdrops on his own funeral, hearing all the complementary things the community is saying about him. He then comments that it was the “proudest moment of his whole life”.
Mark Twain isn’t the only author whose characters experience this phenomenon. Mitch Albom’s book “Tuesdays with Morrie” was first published in 1997. The main character, Morrie Schwartz, is dying of ALS. Mitch Albom visits his former sociology teacher weekly and chronicles the lessons he learns. At one point Morrie plans and actually “throws” for himself a "living funeral" so that he can hear the ways he has impacted people during his life. He gets this idea after going to the funeral of a colleague and coming home saddened that the man never got to hear all the kind things that people said about him.
This idea of a living funeral is not new. It was a ritual commonly practiced in the past. Dying was seen as a social affair that was attended both by the family but also by members of the community where people would gather around the dying person. These people would express their love, gratitude and impact this person had on his/her/their life. The dying person’s “role” was to impart his/her/their wisdom gained through life experiences so that others may benefit from listening to it.
This ritual died in the twentieth century when death moved out of the home and community and into the hospital. Death practices in the United States had changed greatly by the 1940s, when Howard Thurman gave his Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard. Thurman said that as death moved out of the home and into the hospital and the mortuary, “our primary relationship with death [became] impersonal and detached.”
In Japan, it became popularized during the 1990’s to hold living funerals, known as seizenso, it was a way that elders could remove the burden from their children. They wanted to take away the stress for their family and could typically feel ashamed of their failing body. The notion of the living funeral meant that they expected nothing from their family when they passed…including holding (and paying for) a funeral.
Now, especially in North America, with the prevalence of hospice settings and staff who specialize in death (like death doulas, palliative care medical personnel, etc.) this communal and familial ritual is having its resurgence. It is a “good-bye before you die” sort of celebration. People are viewing a living funeral as a chance to honour a loved one while they are still here to enjoy the party.
Still not convinced why this might be the “proudest moment of your whole life”? Attending your own living funeral means you have the chance to listen to and appreciate the stories being told about you. That way, you are present to hear the eulogies and tributes and to understand the impact you have made to your friends and family. More and more people are being open to the idea of living funerals to gather their loved ones to commemorate the final chapter of their lives, particularly if they are elderly, or when they know death is approaching, or if at any age they have received a terminal diagnosis with an impending death and wish to say goodbye to their loved ones before they pass.
It is the closest thing to attending your own funeral. Except:
-There is no casket or dead body, and the vibe tends to be more celebratory, rather than somber. (Many people who are choosing to have a green burial or a cremation will have a cardboard casket on display which people can decorate with messages during the living funeral.)
-They can be formal or informal in nature.
-They can be hosted anywhere.
-There is no set format (unlike weddings or funerals) in respect to how to dress, what to serve, order of events, choice of music, style of decorations, number of people invited, type of invitation, etc. It is your party to plan (alone or with family or with the expert help from a death doula or other party/event planners) however you wish.
-The cost/budget is up to you to determine.
-It is the perfect way to memorialize someone without the involvement of a funeral home. This will allow the funeral home to focus solely on the disposition of the body.
“But I’m healthy, I’m not actively dying so why do I need to even think about having a living funeral?”. You may have already experienced a small sample of a living funeral for yourself. Milestone birthdays are conventional mini versions of living funerals, where huge celebrations are held in a person’s honour when they turn 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and 100. Reflect honestly for a moment- how did you feel after attending one of those? Now imagine that your death is impending, how good would you feel having a living funeral?
In summary, a living funeral, although having roots in the past, is making a slow comeback. It often is seen as unconventional or breaking the established norms of a funeral home handling everything (the two schisms of memorialization and disposition of the body). As more and more people embrace the death positive movement, this is just one example of how to demonstrate your attitude towards your own death care.